Belle Beth Cooper
Belle is an iOS developer and writer. She’s also a co-founder of Hello Code, a Melbourne-based startup.
July 20, 2016 · 8 min read

How to work less and get more done

Sharpen the Saw

We all want to get more done, and these days the default approach seems to be to simply work more hours. But, counterintuitively, this is actually the worst approach.

Working more only helps up to a point. Eventually you'll hit a state of diminishing returns, where each extra hour you work yields a smaller and smaller outcome. The way you spend your time is actually more important than the amount of time you're at the office.

Plus, overworking is really bad for your health.

So how can you spend your time at work more effectively, get more done, and still go home on time? It comes down to two main strategies: planning how you spend your time more carefully, and being smarter about how you stay focused at work.

How to plan your time more effectively

Planning ahead is a "sharpen the saw" habit. In his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey explained that one of those habits is to "sharpen the saw"—that is, to take time out to rest, regroup, and refocus.

The idea comes from a tale of two woodcutters. One continues sawing when his saw gets blunt, insisting there's no time to waste in sharpening the saw. The other takes a break, carefully sharpens her saw, then continues cutting—twice as fast as the first woodcutter.

It can take some discipline to get into the habit, but taking time to prepare your tools and your mind for work will make you more effective when you sit down at your desk.

Make automatic time investments

Make automatic time investments

It's much easier to save money or stay up-to-date with your tax payments if that money is automatically taken out of your bank account or pay check. Rather than having to remember to set the money aside regularly, and going through the effort of committing to saving money or paying tax instalments over and over, automatic drawings from your bank let you make the decision once and not think about it again. This is why tax is held back from employee pay checks, and if you've ever run your own business or worked as a freelancer, you'll know how convenient this is come tax time, even if it seems frustrating when you see your pay check.

In a similar fashion, author and company founder Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests setting up automatic investments of time to ensure you make progress on projects that have stalled. Whether it's a side project you want to build, or a work project that's languishing as other work takes priority, this method can help you find the momentum that's missing.

Just as you would with an automatic savings plan, work out how much time you can afford to set aside every week, and make a recurring event on your calendar. This way, you don't have to find that time every week—it's already part of your schedule. All you need to do, as you would with a growing savings account, is protect it. Treat that appointment on your calendar as a top priority, and do your best to show up at the scheduled time every week to work on your project.

As Saunders says, "By making these time commitments predestined and automatic, you reduce the friction and decision making power needed to accomplish them."

It doesn't matter if it's only a small amount of time at first. The important thing is you're showing up every week, which will build momentum into your project. And making a regular part of your schedule gives it the importance it didn't have while it languished on your "I wish I had time for these" list.

Avoid the planning fallacy with 20% plans

20 percentage plan

One of the many cognitive biases we're all prone to is the planning fallacy. It hits most of us subconsciously, and we have to work hard to consciously overcome it.

The planning fallacy is very simple. It's a fault in our way of thinking that makes us underestimate how long things will take to complete.

And it can hit anyone. It's commonly seen in planning committees for the Olympic Games, who make grand promises about what they'll have done by the opening ceremony, only to fall far short and wonder why. The fallacy was at work spectacularly during the building of the Sydney Opera House. What was supposed to cost $7 million and be finished by 1963, actually ended up costing $102 million, and being opened 10 years late. And it wasn't even completed to the original spec! It cost so much time and money that a scaled-back version was opened in 1973.

So don't feel bad that this fallacy hits you as well.

The planning fallacy is a fault in our thinking that makes us underestimate how long things will take to complete.

Writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young has a suggestion to help you work around this fallacy, even though it's subconscious. It works like this: when you're planning a new project, set out your plan as you normally would. Then, imagine how you'd plan to complete this project with only 20% of the time you're allocating. So, if it was a project you'd planned to do in 30 days, you'd remained your plan as if you only have six days to work with. Or, if you were planning for a group of six people, think about how you'd get the work done with just one person.

Once you've got the 20% plan, Young suggests working with that plan, since it's going to be a lot closer to reality. We generally spend fewer hours and less energy on projects than we expect we will—we're far too optimistic about our future selves and how motivated and productive they'll be. So work with a 20% plan, and anything extra will be a bonus. You'll be more likely to achieve your goals if you plan for 20% of the time and resources you really have.

Use a calendar instead of a to do list

Calendar instead of to-do lists

Here's a technique I've heard a lot of people suggest in the past, but only recently seen the benefits of. As professor, author, and productivity expert Cal Newport says, scheduling tasks on a calendar "generates a massive amount of productivity."

Harvard Business Review writer Peter Bregman agrees with Newport, and suggests using the following rule for ensuring important tasks get done:

Make sure that anything that's been on your list for three days gets a slot somewhere in your calendar or move it off the list.

Whenever I've tried this approach in the past, I've failed to stick to the schedule I set for myself. I'm fine with putting tasks into my calendar, but when it comes time to do the work, I often decide I'm not in the mood for that task and do something else, throwing my whole schedule out of whack.

For a long time I thought this approach just didn't work for me, but I've recently found a couple of tweaks that make it suit me better.

The first comes from Bregman, who suggests setting an hourly reminder on your phone or watch. Every time the reminder goes off, Bregman says you should assess what you spent the past hour doing, and recommit yourself to working on whatever task is scheduled for the next hour. This approach helps you reorient yourself throughout the day, even if you slip up, so ignoring your schedule once won't throw out your whole day.

The other approach is something I picked up from Instagram user @isaplusj. She uses a daily planner with hours printed down the side so she can plan to do her tasks at particular times. But her special trick is this: she recreates this timeline halfway across the pages, splitting her daily planner page into two columns, each with the hours listed. In the left column she plans her day the night before, choosing particular times for her most important tasks.

Then, as the day goes on, she fills in the right hand column with what she actually did each hour. This act of writing down what she really did each hour works a bit like Bergman's hourly reminder: it's a chance to assess what actually happened for the past hour.

When I tried this double timeline approach in my daily planner, I found the guilt of filling in my actual timeline with hours wasted or time spent in frivolous tasks made me more likely to stick to my planned schedule.

If you have trouble sticking to a plan you set for yourself, these two techniques might make it a touch easier.

Front-load your week for a relaxing Friday afternoon

Front loading the work

If you ever struggle with procrastination or bad planning that leaves you scrambling on a Friday afternoon to get things done, this approach is for you. It can take some discipline, but it will make your Friday afternoons far more relaxing.

Front-loading is a process of stacking your to do list to be heavier earlier in the week. So let's say you have 15 tasks to get done this week. On Monday you'd set out to do five of those tasks, then on Tuesday you'd aim to do four more, then three on Wednesday, two on Thursday, and just one on Friday. Or if you're working on a big project throughout the week, you could plan to do the biggest chunk of work on it Monday, another big chunk Tuesday, then smaller tasks to finish it off for the rest of the week.

However you plan your work, front-loading simply means you make the earlier days in the week busier than the later days. Few of us can maintain a huge output of work every single day without getting burned out, so front-loading helps you ensure your biggest days come early in the week when you're more focused and motivated after the weekend break. This method stops you from scrambling at the end of the week to get things finished up, and it gives you time on your last couple of days to plan for the week ahead and deal with unexpected extra workload without the pressure of hitting your weekly goals or deadlines.

Improve your focus and stop wasting time

If you struggle to be as efficient as you can during work hours, it may be because your focus is off. If you're constantly switching tasks, getting distracted, or wondering where your time went, understanding how to focus better can make your work time much more effective.

Use a time log to improve your efficiency

If you're not sure when and where you're losing time to distractions, a time log is the first step to getting your focus back. It's simple to do a time log: just put a sheet of paper and a pen on your desk, and every hour or so write down the time and what you've been doing since your last log.

You'll need to do this for a week or two to start seeing patterns in how you spend your time, when you're most productive, and when you lose time most often to distractions.

You'll also get a better idea of how long different tasks take from your time log, so you can plan more effectively in the future. You'll probably be surprised to find that many tasks take longer than you expected. This knowledge will help you better estimate your schedule in the future, and not plan more than you can achieve in a day.

Single-task to improve your focus

Multitasking has long been touted as a skill every employee should have, but science has shown it's not such a good thing after all. In fact, multitasking doesn't actually exist. What we think of as multitasking is actually just switching between different tasks very quickly. It's so quick that we think we're doing multiple things at the same time, but even though we can't perceive it, our brains take a tiny pause each time we switch between tasks to refocus on what we're doing.

What we think of as multitasking is actually just switching between different tasks very quickly.

Those tiny switches might seem like they don't matter, but they add up. Not only are we wasting time with all the switching between tasks, but because we're forcing our brains to keep refocusing, we actually end up being slower and performing worse than we would if we did the same tasks consecutively.

If you're prone to multitasking you may need to retrain yourself, but in the end you'll find your productivity increases overall. Try to focus on just one task at a time, avoiding distractions until it's done, then take a break to let your brain relax before starting something new. Making a clear distinction between tasks and doing one at a time will help you perform better and faster.

Take more breaks to refresh your mind

Speaking of breaks, another counter-intuitive idea that's come from science is that taking more breaks actually helps us be more productive.

It's too easy when you're busy to eat lunch at your desk, or squeeze in five minutes of browsing Twitter or Facebook every hour and think that you don't need any more breaks. But to truly focus and produce our best work, our brains need real rest breaks.

Research shows taking a walk in a park full of trees can do wonders for the brain. Compared to walking down a city street, walking in a park lets the brain relax and refocus much better. Natural settings are good for our minds, and getting away from the pressures of work for a while can leave you refreshed and motivated when you return to your desk.

Another study found calling a loved one can helps us relax and refocus.

If you struggle to take real breaks through the day, try to schedule them into your calendar and take them on time. Breaks are just as important as the time you spend at your desk, because they'll make that time even more productive.

Sometimes there's no way around working more hours to get more done, but try putting these techniques in place before you go down that route. You might be surprised at how much more productive you are in the same amount of time.